Signs & Symptoms

Cognitive Distortions

Is your child making a mountain out of a mole hill?

Some children tend to use what psychologists call ‘maladaptive’ thinking patterns. That is, they tend to exaggerate the negative elements of situations, to jump to erroneous conclusions, and to fail to change their negative perspectives when there is clear evidence to the contrary. For example, your child may say, “I am not going to social studies today. I know I will fail that test!” Then, when your child actually does well on the test, he will not correct his thinking, claiming instead, “Well, I’m still failing the class.” Another word for these maladaptive thinking patterns is ‘cognitive distortions.’

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking about things in an inaccurate way that makes the person feel depressed, anxious, or have a lowered self-esteem. This kind of thinking involves rigidity. It means that the child cannot see how situations may have some good and some bad aspects. He may have a ‘glass is always half empty’ state of mind.

Your child may seem stubborn. When a peer makes one mistake, she may say, “Well, she is not my friend anymore.” There is no wiggle room. Friends and family may feel like they are walking on eggshells.

He may feel like nothing works out right or goes his way. When things are good, caregivers may feel that they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What do challenges with Cognitive Distortions look like?

  • Thinking in “black and white?”
  • Saying, “Math is evil,” “Everyone hates me” or “This is the worst day of my life?”
  • Jumping from one extreme to the other? If the store is out of the bubblegum ice cream, does he say, “Well, then I don’t want any! This place is stupid!”
  • Refusing to look on the bright side?
  • Always seeing the glass as half empty?
  • Severely exaggerating problems? In other words, making a mountain out of a mole hill.’

Why is Cognitive Distortions happening?

These patterns of thoughts are examples of Cognitive Distortions. Cognitive Distortions were introduced by psychologist Aaron Beck years ago to explain patterns of thinking that contribute to anxiety and depression. Understanding these distortions and thought patterns is essential in treating anxiety and depression. 

  • Black and white thinking is the inability to see shades of gray in other people and situations. It’s “all or nothing.” Examples include “I am a terrible person.” Or “I like to do everything perfectly.” Black and White thinking is neither realistic nor helpful for your child. 
  • Catastrophizing – Seeing small problems as big problems. Jumping to the conclusion that the worst possible thing will always happen, without facts and evidence. Making a mountain out of a molehill. In the delightful children’s story, Big Dog, Little Dog, the bird tells the dogs at the end, ‘Why make big problems out of little problems.’ This sentiment helps kids fight against the urge to catastrophize. 
  • Overgeneralizing – One small situation is generalized to all situations. Use words like ‘never’ and ‘always.’ “I made one mistake. I’m an idiot who always makes mistakes.’
  • Blaming – Focused on blaming others. Refusing to take ownership for mistakes. 
  • Personalization – The tendency to see everything as somehow related to the self. If someone is quiet and sad one day, they assume, “I must have done something.”  

Parents can help a child by guiding the child to consider different possibilities. One must see other positive options to have the confidence and energy to try. By taking an all or nothing stance like “I am a bad person,” little room is left for change, while “I had a bad day” implies that tomorrow can be better. 

 

A better way: As children learn to look at negative occurrences as singular and specific instead of global and general, their outlook can be more positive because they have the confidence to try again or to do things differently. Recognizing negative thought patterns is the first step to making change. If a child can see this negative thinking, perhaps with the help of a therapist, it is possible to enact meaningful and lasting changes over time in these patterns. 

How can I manage Cognitive Distortions at home?

Listen to your child, and hear what he or she says. Echo or reframe what was said. “I will never win student council president” can be reframed as “It feels like things just never go your way.”

Offer understanding that the particular issue shared is a bummer. Then say, “I wonder if there are a few things you could try?”

Take the belief, and introduce hope or introduce an alternative. Try not to say something completely contrary like “Yes you will; you are brilliant.” Try to get at your child’s emotion, and to gently guide him or her to see other sides. For example, “I understand that you are nervous about how you will do on the test. What can we do to help you feel better?

Remember to hear your child; if you quickly discount a statement or feeling, then you will get resistance back.

Meet your child where he or she is at that moment, and help to gently move them to a less extreme position. You want your child to get there on his or her own and to shift the thought to a more optimistic position of “Maybe I’ll win if I share my ideas.”

In the inspirational children’s book, What Do You Do With A Problem [6], the author (Mae Besom) provides a brilliant example of how children can turn little issues into large ones. She writes, “And the more I avoided my problem, the more I saw it everywhere. I thought about it all the time. I didn’t feel good at all. I couldn’t take it anymore. ‘This has to stop!’ I declared. Maybe I was making my problem bigger and scarier than it actually was. After all, my problem hadn’t really swallowed me up or attacked me” [6].

The idea illustrated here is that when worries and the tendency to catastrophize take hold, the child feels miserable and trapped. He or she does not realize that a potential solution to the problem could be just around the corner or that maybe the problem isn’t so big after all.

Read books on the issue with your child. At home, reading books like this one, and What to do if you worry too much [7], From Worrier to Warrior [8], 12 Annoying Monsters [9] are all helpful ways to engage your child in a dialogue about his or her thinking patterns. These thoughts are maladaptive, which means they are ‘getting in the way’ of happiness and well-being. Tell your child, “Whether you are right or wrong, all of this negative thinking is not helping you. It’s getting in your way. Let’s see how we can ‘re-think’ it together.”

If, even with these supports in place at home, your child is still struggling with extreme emotions, excessive worries, or depression, it is time to get help. First, reach out to the school counselor.

Let the counselor know that your child is struggling and could use some help at school. Then, it may be helpful to get a therapist involved. Black and White thinking is often treated with cognitive therapy that includes examining thoughts and challenging beliefs that are negative or not grounded in evidence.

CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy [2, 3, 4, 5] includes challenging thinking and changing behaviors to move in the direction you want to go. If your child has very entrenched black and white thinking, consider CBT, which has research and evidence to support its effectiveness in combating this thinking style. Many individuals find a great deal of relief from this type of therapy and often are able to overcome depression and anxiety through this approach.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Cognitive Distortions?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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